Jimmy Butler’s reputation as a top-notch defender was burnished Sunday afternoon, as he goaded league MVP LeBron James into a 17-point outing on just 8-for-23 shooting in the Bulls’ 95-88 overtime win over the Heat at the United Center.
Butler not only held the Miami superstar to that stat line, but he didn’t allow James to even get to the free-throw line, the first time that’s happened since December 2009, and successfully defended him on the final possession of regulation, a clear-out in which Butler cleanly stripped James on a drive to the basket. And for good measure, during a second-quarter baseline scuffle between the pair, Butler landed a well-placed foot to James’ face, resulting in double technical fouls being assessed to each party.
“I don’t know, I just feel like two competitors were down there. Whatever happened, happened,” Butler explained about the incident. “But I just — I don’t back down, let’s just put it like that.”
Extra-curricular activities aside, while James clearly had an off game and didn’t seem to be his usual, attacking self for most of the day — cynics will probably blame the performance on his trip to Cleveland to attend the Cavaliers’ retirement ceremony for former teammate Zydrunas Ilgauskas — Butler’s defense is beginning to approach a level where he should be mentioned among the top perimeter stoppers in the game.
“Same thing that I was doing all game. Just try to stop him from scoring, try to make him settle for a jump shot,” he said when asked about his strategy on the aforementioned possession. “I did all right. But I just feel like it was good defense on my part and the four guys behind me. Make him settle for a few jump shots and just contest the other shots at the rim.”
“I don’t know, effort. I feel like that’s what a lot of defense is, just the want-to and the will to fight through a screen or to try to never give up on a play. I feel like that’s what I did,” the swingman added. “Everybody in this league is an NBA player. LeBron is a really great player, but like I always say, I just play hard. I just want to prove to everybody that the little kid from Tomball deserves a spot in the NBA.”
The third-year Marquette product’s done a lot more than that, according to those who see him on a daily basis.
“Jimmy played a terrific game. He’s such a tough matchup and Jimmy guards everyone, and he makes them work. You can’t stop players like LeBron and (Dwyane) Wade individually, but he battles and he battles, and I thought his rebounding, timely free throws, the big shot late — he stepped up and made the three — and Jimmy’s really been playing well offensively for about three, four weeks now. So he’s a catalyst. He makes a lot of things happen for our team. He’s playing great basketball,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau explained. “Hey, look: Jimmy is a fierce, fierce competitor and he’s got great feet, strength, anticipation, intelligence, OK? And as I said, LeBron, he’s a load and the best thing about Jimmy is his demeanor. He’ll do it over and over and over again, and he does it playing big minutes. He doesn’t complain. In many ways, all the things that (Joakim Noah) does, Jimmy does. He’s a great competitor, and we need that. When you’re short-handed, you have to play with great intensity all the time."
Noah, the Bulls’ All-Star center, chimed in: “I’m pretty happy with how he guarded (James). Jimmy was a warrior today. He’s one of those guys, too, when things aren’t going his way, he can do so many things on the basketball court to affect winning, and you need guys like that.”